- The Tegart police fort in Latrun, now part of the Armored Corps Museum (Alexander Borzhonov / CC).
- Our territory is inhabited by a number of races speaking different languages and living on different historical levels … A variety of epochs live side by side in the same areas or a very few miles apart, ignoring or devouring one another … Past epochs never vanish completely, and blood still drips from all their wounds, even the most ancient.”
- Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Driving down Route One from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, you pass through a gauntlet of pine-clad gorges, empty but for a few gutted armored cars left by the roadside as memorials to those fallen in the country’s War of Independence. Where the coastal plain finally banks into view, there rises on either side of the road a last outcrop of wooded foothills, known as the Latrun salient. Though nothing indicates that these hills might be different from those that lurched past minutes earlier, this terrain is still demarcated on some maps as No-Man’s Land, testimony to a time when another country once began here, when one could have hazarded houses amid these slopes, heard laughter trickle down through the midday haze. Today Latrun’s new-growth forest echoes only with the banter of Israeli weekend barbecues and the faint rumble of traffic. Yet as you gather speed down the highway, already sighting the first skyscrapers of Tel Aviv on the horizon, you can make out on the other side of the road a looming relic of the old frontier.
On the last hill before the plains stands a fortress, lean, pockmarked by bullet holes, and surrounded by the looted detritus of war—decommissioned tanks, armored personnel carriers, old howitzers. The collection belongs to the Armored Corps Museum that is today housed here. Fronted by a rest stop and gas station which stocks hot dogs and camping gear for people primarily pressing on to elsewhere, the site is for parts of the year a relatively overlooked way station on the national tourist trail. On the day of my first visit, only a dozen people were wandering around the ramparts, some clambering over the tanks, posing for photographs on their turrets, others already making their way out. Yet for those who might linger here, there are sweeping views of vacated agro-industrial pastorals emptying into Israel’s heartland, and a guidelet’s invitation to reimagine the wars, ancient and modern, that have been fought over the land.
On an exterior wall flanking the entrance to the Latrun fortress is an informational glass plaque, which relates that the structure was built “as a lesson of the 1936–1939 riots” but is otherwise curiously silent about those events, what happened then, or why. Indeed, the “riots” of 1936–1939 rarely figure in the shorthand summations of the history that has shaped this land. Israelis know those years merely as a paroxysm of inchoate violence, far removed in time and overtaken by later wars and rebellions, among which they will foremost remember their own. In such ways, for some people, this would forever be the uprising that wasn’t.
By the end of the 1930s, an estimated 120,000 Palestinians had been made landless.
Long after the spring of 1936, when news of a general strike and unrest in Palestine began to creep into the London headlines, government correspondences would speak interminably of events forever on the brink—of growing disturbances, ambushes on colonial troops, a complete absence of rule of law—yet hesitate to put a name to what was happening. General Bernard Montgomery, who was sent to suppress the “riots” before he won fame as Rommel’s nemesis in the North African desert campaigns of the Second World War, famously dismissed the main protagonists as “bandits.” Throughout, the government blamed the unrest on excitable elements within the native population, at odds with its best own interests. At home as well as abroad, newspapers absorbed interchangeable tales of rampant criminality, religious fanaticism, and still more nefarious influences. “Italian Propaganda Campaign Renewed—Thought to Blame for Most Trouble,” declared a New York Times headline in 1937, divining a new fascism at work in the East. But while the Axis powers were happy to publicize Britain’s troubles in the region, the Times, not for the last time, had it wrong.
In 1917, the British government had published a document known as the Balfour Declaration, which promised the distant land of Palestine as a national home for the Zionist movement. Its adherents, a mélange of European utopians, ideologues, and refugees from the pale of settlement, had been arriving over the preceding decades—at first establishing plantation-model estates with land acquired from semi-feudal landholders, later buying smaller parcels of land, or appropriating communal village and urban lands with governmental connivance, and, with growing frequency, evicting those peasants who worked it. By the end of the 1930s, an estimated 120,000 Palestinians had been made landless. Around them, clusters of new hard-angle houses were springing up, and for a growing number of Arabs, even cursorily familiar with the news from French Algeria, the British East Africa Protectorate, or Rhodesia, there was no mistaking the writing on those walls.
For years there had been demonstrations and violence, commissions of inquiry, premonitions of revolt. Once it finally erupted, it grew into the most concerted challenge to imperial authority since the Boer War. Following the expiration of a nationwide strike, bands of rebels began sealing off their warren-like casbahs, overrunning police stations, and harassing the country’s European colonies. In one year alone, the authorities logged a thousand attacks on police and military positions and six hundred on Jewish settlements. Over the coming years, government forces briefly deserted the major towns of Jaffa, Hebron, Jericho, Beersheba, and even the Old City of Jerusalem. As the term “revolt” began creeping into press coverage, the government acknowledged that it had lost control of much of the country.
As related by historian Tom Segev in his book One Palestine: Complete, the 25,000 soldiers who began arriving in Palestine in 1937 were the largest expeditionary force dispatched by Her Majesty’s government since the First World War, when it first seized this corner of the Levant. It took three years to quash the riots. Periodically, some news of the means by which this was accomplished would make it into the British press, even spark occasional questioning by a concerned Labour MP. As later evidence would show, more than four thousand Palestinians were killed—many times the number lost by the British government and the Jewish settler community. Yet it was stories of rebel outrages, such as the killing of nineteen settlers near Tiberias, among them eleven children, that dominated the headlines that year. Among the things glossed over by this coverage was the violence being done not only to the native inhabitants of Palestine, but also to the physical space of the country. For while the government had little trouble standing its ground in its distant battle with terrorists and brigands, those who bore the brunt of this resolve now found that same terrain warping around them, then settling into new, confounding patterns.
One autumn over seventy years later, as I was driving along a fenced settler highway in the West Bank, this impression of a world torn and rearranged, again came back to me. When the seasons shift in the country, warm, sea-soaked air rolls up from the coast after sunset and swathes the highlands in dense, billowing fog. It was a night like that, wrapped in a white void, when my car suddenly coughed and then chugged to a halt on the embankment, hopelessly stranded. I sat there until morning, watching mist swirling beyond the roadside wire, occasionally nodding off. Sometimes a rent would open in the void, and, in one such moment, two opposing landscapes flickered into view. The highway, I now realized, skirted the edge of a deep gorge. Through my windshield, I could make out severed trails on its terraced slope—a world of lost passages that seemed set apart from the highway not only by the wire fence but by time itself. In that moment, a dark structure emerged in my rearview, looming over the highway, wrapped in a halo of white searchlight. A row of concrete slabs. A single watchtower. It was a prison camp. Then the mist closed in again.
Much of my reconstruction of the years of the Revolt was done not in the Middle East but in the basement archive of an Oxford college during an otherwise sunny English summer. Its office was a small room with two desks, one for researchers, the other occupied by a young, helpful librarian, who would periodically disappear into the adjoining stacks to retrieve cartons of sundry Imperial documents, news clippings, photographs. As the sound of outside traffic murmured in the room’s high-set casement, I searched for what these documents could say about those years, but also what their statistics could only darkly hint at—the violence being done to Palestine’s native inhabitants and to the physical space of their country.
British veterans of the campaign would for years thereafter recall rural Mesopotamia as a landscape swathed in barbed wire.
The story begins in 1873, when Joseph Glidden, an American farmer, took out the first US patent for a novel form of cattle control. Originally manufactured by the Barb Wire Company of DeKalb, Illinois, his invention proved an affordable means of both carving space and fixing bodies in place—and, as such, became a stupendous export success. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, British infantry would subdue South Africa’s Boer frontier by blanketing the High Veldt in coiled barbed wire, known as concertina, infamously culminating in 1920 in the concentration camps that Britain eventually erected there—the first of the modern era. Around this time Italian armored cars were also chasing Omar al-Mukhtar’s mounted rebels through the Libyan hinterlands, leaving behind camp after camp of corralled, starved Bedouin. These scenes were reprised during Britain’s suppression of the 1920 Iraqi revolt, a campaign that made such extensive use of Glidden’s invention that British veterans of the campaign would for years thereafter recall rural Mesopotamia as a landscape swathed in barbed wire.
In 1936 this experience was brought to bear on Palestine. Soon after the outbreak of armed resistance, the government moved to quarantine urban centers of revolt and establish some modicum of control over the country’s inaccessible highlands. Britain’s men on the ground perennially complained that many of the villages from which insurgents were drawn, and in which they often took shelter, were places that even after nearly two decades of British rule had yet to set sight on an English soldier. Affording them this privilege would require that landscapes be pried apart and then stitched together within a new arrangement. In order to dislodge rebels from the narrow alleyways of the Arab coastal city of Jaffa and open the city to imperial troops, some eight hundred houses in the heart of the city were Haussmannized as part of an “urban regeneration campaign.” More than two thousand people were left homeless, in what was to prove a harbinger of a punitive house-demolition policy subsequently rolled out across the countryside, and which would sometimes entail the outright demolition of those communities deemed insufficiently cooperative with the government.*
Rolling out the concertina was an indispensable part of this pedagogy of violence, as exemplified by population screening operations that became a staple of the government’s rural repression campaign. Roaming platoons of soldiers and police began cordoning off villages, rounding up their inhabitants—sometimes by the thousands—in barbed-wire “cages” erected on the villages’ outskirts, before finally transferring suspected insurgents into a sprawling archipelago of long-term internment camps.
That new native demographic known as “likely suspects,” as well as the purgatories into which it was herded, were products of emergency legislation printed into force by the Mandate administration. The 1937 Palestine Martial Law, derived from legalisms initially pressed into service during the 1921 Irish War of Independence, gave the local British High Commissioner effective power “to take any action he wished,” in order to reinstitute control. Despite its title, however, the legislation limned a precarious line between colonial self-image and reality, constituting not an outright declaration of martial law—and with it the admission that government had broken down—but rather the normalization of an indefinite state of exception. The modern security state had arrived in Palestine.
In the space that it made, a new tracery of power now became discernible. Its wharf was in part bureaucratic—composed of new personal IDs, travel permits, and village registers with which the government sought to fix the local population—and in part physical, strung together from sudden roadblocks, checkpoints, and islands of barbed wire that rapidly metastasized along new roads now built to channel armored cars and soldiers into the country’s rural interior.
As I scrolled through the photographs, internal intelligence memoranda, and news clippings that fill the Oxford archive, these interlocking grids of control flickered in and out of view—sometimes incomplete, often only partially effective, yet indelibly premonitory. At the center of that vision stood the colonial detainment camps, whose total population by the peak of the rebellion had swelled to some ten thousand, as related by Segev in his book. At various times, each would turn into a small concertina township. Many became so overcrowded that older detainees had to be rotated out to make space for new ones. By that very sprawling fact, however, the form of the camp also grew increasingly diffuse, at once merging with the barbed cordon perimeters that were springing up around surrounding towns and villages, and pushing toward a larger possibility.
Near the end of my time in my Oxford basement, I came upon a government handbook published after the suppression of the Revolt, entitled Combined Military and Police Action. In it was a set of instructional drawings, depicting a village encircled by a sweep-and-arrest operation. Setting the image of the camp against these sketches briefly induced a feeling of vertigo, as the contours of the former began to blur into the latter; the camp becoming ever more a village, the village ever more a camp. The effect was only belatedly punctuated by the observation that in both of these schemata, in all their elaborate superimposition of structure, the natives themselves were curiously difficult to make out. As if they had become invisible.
The village of Halhoul sprawls over a low hill some twenty kilometers south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank’s highland interior. What was once a spread of limestone houses set amid fruit orchards and rows of grapevine today figures as a densely packed, peri-urban extension of the nearby city of Hebron. As in most villages here, the inhabitants of Halhoul retain a strong sense of its past, and in that collective recollection, memories of barbed wire figure with particular insistence.
“He led them to a well and at first sight of water threw himself into it. They shot him on the spot, down there in the well.”
The sun was setting by the time I was ushered into a sparsely furnished anteroom at Yousef Isbetani’s house. Along concrete walls, high-set window slits faced onto a small garden littered with farming implements. Plastic chairs that had been brought out for the guests and the older men in the family were arranged facing a low, wood-frame bed on which the old patriarch was seated, dressed in a gray djellaba, and resting a chronically swollen foot on one of the chairs. One of his grandsons, a sturdy farmer in his late thirties, sat next to him and loudly repeated my questions into his ear. “I was born in 1912,” began the old man, and was immediately interrupted. “Ah, he doesn’t know himself,” said the grandson. “They didn’t issue birth records in the village then.” “He’s at least ninety, we know that,” added another grandson indulgently, “more than ninety.” Around them an attentive throng of Yousef’s great-grandchildren had assembled. The older girls and women listened from the doorway, exchanging smiles and knowing looks as the story was retold. “The English, they put our feet to the fire,” he continued. “No one ruled us like the English … I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
Yousef was born into a family of farmers, but like many young men of the time was soon forced to straddle another kind of life. The Arab population of Palestine was growing rapidly in those years and Yousef’s family did not have the means to expand their plots. The British administration, which had ensconced itself in Palestine a few years after Yousef’s birth, provided an intermittent source of income. In the early 1930s, the government built a new regional police station on a hill overlooking the village and the nearby city of Hebron, recruiting local men for its construction. “We were paid four piasters a day,” said the old man. “Some two to three hundred men from the village worked on the station. They picked us up like sheep at the market. There was no money then.”
A few years later, disenchantment with colonial rule swept the country. Hebron’s rugged terrain proved an ideal haven for local guerillas, among them Yousef, who took to its hills with other men from the village, joining a band of rebels. Many of their rifles were antiquated, but they made as good a use of them as they could. They set ambushes around the settlement of Kfar Etzion, Yousef told me. “Once we burned four vehicles and killed six soldiers.” Two British airplanes were also famously shot down over the area, one crashing at the edge of the village. The war in the hills around Hebron carried on until the end of the Revolt, by which time colonial responses to rebel “outrages”—as the government dubbed Arab attacks—had turned swift and summary.
On May 6, 1939, a squadron of British soldiers descended on the entrance to Halhoul and rapidly rounded up one hundred and fifty people, among them peasants, students, a few elderly men, and three itinerant Egyptian brassware polishers. It was reported that a colonial officer had just been killed in the area and the officer commanding the squadron had decided to make an example of the village. The detainees were herded into a cage rapidly strung together on a vine-covered hilltop, since known locally as “The Hill.” The village’s leaders were then ordered to hand over one hundred fifty rifles to the commanding officer—one Douglas Gordon. It was a completely random sweep, recalled Yousef. “I was the only one among all those men who was actually a rebel. And in all of the village there were nowhere near that many rifles.” Gordon was unmoved. At first he threatened to begin executing the prisoners, then said that they would be denied food and water until his demands were met.
In May, the Levantine sun can blaze as if it were already high summer. For the first five days the villagers were given a cup of water per day and nothing to eat. Some gnawed on the roots of the vines. On the sixth day all water rations were cut. “By then we were drinking our own urine,” said the old man. On the seventh they started dying. The hours and days ran into each other—the soldiers having mounted searchlights over the cage to keep the prisoners awake at night. Some detainees pretended to confess. “Rashid Noufal told the soldiers that he knew where a gun was hidden,” recalled Yousef. “He led them to a well and at first sight of water threw himself into it. They shot him on the spot, down there in the well.”
Among the most haunting features of this spectacle was the fact that it unfolded in full view of the entire village. The soldiers bayoneted the water bags of those women who tried to approach the cage; dragged away others who tried to throw pieces of food over the wire. Fights broke out with the soldiers, and a separate cage was briefly erected for a number of the women; one gave birth inside it, her son among the first Palestinians born into barbed wire. Spectators also passed through—one or two foreigners, according to some accounts, including a British army doctor who, as it was later related, became so agitated that he went at Gordon with his fists. A delegation from the International Red Cross Society that showed up with supplies was turned away by the soldiers.
In the end the remaining villagers formed a committee to collect money to purchase rifles and guns from outside the village. Thirty-six were handed over to Gordon. In all, thirteen people died in the cage, two shortly thereafter. Some went mad afterward, said Yousef. Some went blind. But no one informed on him. According to one version of events, Gordon finally made a short speech. From what the villagers could understand, he said something about how he had come to respect their fighting spirit and how he regretted that they had to die in this manner and that what had happened to them was still nevertheless their own fault. Then he left.
Before I also departed Halhoul, I visited the hill where the detainees had been kept. Its vineyard has long ago been cleared and built over, and where the barbed-wire enclosure was once erected there stands a school for girls girded by a high, white fence. “I’m the only one of the survivors of ‘The Hill’ who is still alive,” concluded Yousef. “This generation doesn’t know or remember, and the old people died.” Before I left, his grandson offered me a final afterthought. “They were soldiers from the ‘Black Watch,’” he said, pronouncing the name in English—“you know the ones with the skirts?” he explained, meaning the kilts then used by this Scottish regiment. “They are in Iraq now, in Basra. We see them on TV.”
In asking how incidents like those at “The Hill” could be allowed to happen, it is worth revisiting the Combined Military and Police Action manual. It clearly instructs:
(b) In selecting the site of the cage try and set a place in the shade so that you will not have the additional bother of people getting sunstroke … (e) A water truck is always required at the cage. A Medical Officer and Interpreter should also be in the vicinity.
This text would seem a straightforward guide for how to palliate suffering, but if read backwards and appended to a certain tacit understanding, it could also serve as a template for how to administer suffering. And perhaps there is no contradiction therein. Power configured in certain ways makes its own exceptions. You can exercise it by doing nothing—by failing to provide water, for instance; by disengaging, as it were, gradually, in such a way as to calibrate the pressure applied and the suffering inflicted. All you had to do, at first, was to erect some wire.
The borders of the British Mandate of Palestine were lines of ink on a map, in some places adhering to a body of water, but otherwise often unmindful of terrain and of people.
Such were the lessons absorbed by many of the British servicemen who spent time in Palestine between 1936 and 1939. Over time their experience precipitated a kind of expertise—an understanding of what needed to be known about insurgents and agitators and what could be done to them. One of the names lent to this kind of expertise was “colonial policing,” a profession set against the subversive movements that would eventually materialize in most of the places where Britain set foot. The imperial gendarmerie to whom this job fell had until 1932 been schooled in Northern Ireland. Impressed by the “excellent training ground” that was Palestine, however, the government that year set up a depot near Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. For the next two decades, the entire overseas police officer corps of the late British Empire, some ten thousand men in all, was schooled there.
Their exemplar would arrive in Palestine just five years after training commenced. The October 22, 1937, issue of the Daily Telegraph profiles him in a pith helmet, eyes hidden by the shadow of its brim, his features otherwise lost in the grain of the print. The figure is identified as Sir Charles Tegart, pictured in the Telegraph as Police Commissioner of Bengal, a post from which he had retired ten months earlier after leading a decade-long campaign against nationalist insurgents. Much of what Tegart came to know about such people he learned by torturing them; already decorated by the time he arrived in India and subsequently widely praised for his “forthright measures in dealing with terrorism,” Tegart sealed his image as the “Iron Man” of the Raj by surviving two assassination attempts. By the time the Daily Telegraph announced his appointment as a special police adviser to the Palestine Government, he was firmly established as a “terror of the terrorists”—the Empire’s foremost authority on that burgeoning brand of violence.
In hindsight, it is perhaps telling that those human stories that in Palestine intersected with Tegart’s have all but been wiped from the official record. The Oxford archive in which his old reports and private letters are stored says nothing about the lessons that were taught in the torture training center that he had instituted at the Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestine police. Instead, his legacy can mainly be retraced through concrete, the hardening of the landscape that he oversaw during the final years of the Revolt, and which would remain, for another sixty years, the most enduring physical transcript of the violence colonialism inflicted here.
The borders of the British Mandate of Palestine were no more real than such things tend to be: lines of ink on a map, in some places adhering to a body of water, but otherwise often unmindful of terrain, also of people, as was often the case in those vast expanses of the world carved up by Europe’s imperial powers. In no part of Palestine did the ink seem more tenuous than in the north, where the border loses itself among deeply furrowed mountains, these in turn melding with the surrounding highlands of neighboring Lebanon and Syria—countries which lay outside British control. This confounding terrain figured in the writings of Mandate officials as a colonial zone of anxiety above all others, onto which a host of disparate imperial frustrations were routinely transposed, and whose purported significance accordingly grew with every month of the Revolt.
The wellsprings of these concerns were in part real. In addition to bands of rebels, it was known that letters of instruction, money, and arms were passing across the border. In order to escape British house arrest, the Revolt’s national figurehead, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, had fled to Beirut in 1937, and the government was keen to isolate him there. The uprising also enjoyed wide support in Syria. The charismatic preacher and anti-colonial organizer Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, who had settled in Haifa in 1929, and from there began organizing local guerilla units, was a Syrian by birth. His killing in 1935 became a lightning rod for armed insurrectionists across the country, helping to ignite the Revolt.
The importance of the cross-border traffic was frequently disputed, however, even within the government. Intelligence sources based in Syria averred that a vast majority of the rebels were in fact homegrown. It was also clear from such correspondences that the Mufti and his entourage had only limited influence over rural rebels, and that many of the letters he sent across the border were concerned with settling internal scores within an increasingly fractious national movement. Yet for a government seeking to paint the uprising as something instigated from abroad the border became a convenient rhetorical dumping ground. The New York Times, from which readers would already know that fascist Italy was instigating most of the trouble, could in the same article verify that “90 percent of the Arab terrorist gangs at present operating in Palestine are Syrians.”
Palestine’s new terrorism expert also knew what needed to be known. Soon after arriving, Tegart began pushing for the construction of a fence across the northern border. In the summer of 1938, with labor mostly provided by the labor organization of Palestine’s Jewish community, the government began building. Soon dubbed “Tegart’s Wall,” the completed, electrified barbed-wire fence spanned a hundred kilometers, guarded at regular intervals by pillboxes and patrolled by armored police cars that operated out of five new border forts that were built along its path, each surmounted by a watchtower that also doubled as a machinegun position.
In their evaluations of the fence, government officials noted with some mixture of sympathy and amusement that it was making life difficult for natives living on either side of the border, many of whom had previously braved it to visit relatives, trade, or work land. They were less amused when those natives promptly dismantled some sixteen kilometers of the fence within the first two weeks of its construction. Additional troops had to be seconded in order to safeguard the structure—an irony largely lost on those concerned. It was telling, however, that similar structures were not erected across other sections of Palestine’s border, including along the Jordan River, though Tegart had helped draft plans for such work. Nevertheless, as a model of rule, Tegart’s Wall proved prophetic. Sheathing the edges of the land, it became a metonym for that authority the government was so relentlessly asserting in the interior, and as such also prefigured the other mass of fortifications with which Tegart would cap Palestine’s new garrison reality.
On June 28, 2002, the Israeli army demolished the Hebron headquarters of the twelve-year-old Palestinian self-rule authority with a massive explosion that also saw history implode on itself. The old building was the final incarnation of the rural police station on which Yousef Isbetani, the old man in Halhoul, had once worked in his youth, one among numerous such stations the British built in the decade that followed its conquest of Palestine. Many of these were small, poorly fortified structures, and during the first years of the Revolt were easily overrun and destroyed by roaming bands of guerillas. “There is no need to stress the damage done to the prestige of the Government by this tale of evacuation and destruction of buildings which were to many people the outward and visible sign of the existence of Government,” wrote Tegart. In 1938, it was time to let it be known that the government was, indeed, very much there.
Acknowledged by the authorities to be “the largest project undertaken in a single year by any Public Works Department in the history of British colonial government,” Tegart’s fortresses dwarfed everything else the British ever built in Palestine. Counting the expansion and fortification of a number of existing buildings, including the Halhoul/Hebron police station, fifty-five fortresses were erected. Each was to garrison a police squadron and serve as an administrative center for the surrounding region. Perched on hills that commanded the country’s main regional towns and roads and surrounded by expanses of barbed wire, they towered over the surrounding countryside, rendering power and prerogative in concrete.
At the Haganah Museum in Tel Aviv, dedicated to the history of the Yishuv’s proto-army, there is a collection of photographs showing the forts just after they were finished. Set at stark angles to screeching expanses of sky and rock, theirs was a modernist architecture that manifestly flaunted what it purported to stand for, but which, while sleek and affective when incarnated in the Bauhaus of nearby Tel Aviv, took on a menacing gauntness when its function was so transparently, and monumentally, repressive. Today, this impression is all the stronger. Pacing below the ramparts of the Armored Corps Museum, surveying the dreary, dirty pink expanse of cement, the bullet holes which have been left to dramatize the final chapters of its history, I could see clearly how wear has further accentuated its gauntness. In one photograph, depicting a fort newly sited near a Jewish settlement in the Galilee, you can already see the mold creeping into the plasterwork.
It has been said that fortifications tend to be built with a mind to the war that was, rarely the one that will be, and for some time this also threatened to be the fate of Fortress Palestine. Construction of the Tegarts began when the Revolt was on its last legs and by the time the last fort was completed in 1941, the Revolt had long been crushed. Ironically, the main service that they rendered to the Empire was to buttress its forces against the Zionist rebellion that erupted after the Second World War, briefly setting them against the very movement they had been intended to shore up. The victories that Britain scored in that counterinsurgency were Pyrrhic, however. Against the backdrop of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the ambitions of Palestine’s colonists were hard for Europeans to gainsay, and in an era that had yet to descend the high tide of colonialism, the competing desires of non-Europeans less so. In February 1947 the British government announced it was preparing to end its Palestine Mandate, and proceeded to lobby a nascent UN for a resolution to quarter up the country.
By the time British forces finally quit Palestine in May 1948, the name of that country was already fading from history. Following the passing of the UN partition resolution six months earlier, Zionist forces moved quickly to empty the country of its Arab inhabitants. In December 1947 they began raiding villages along the coast, prompting a first flight of refugees. When Arab irregulars from neighboring countries filtered into the country a month later, the expulsions were stepped up. By the time the first regular Arab forces entered, in the wake of the imperial evacuation, 300,000 people, one quarter of the native population, were already in flight.
The British army, still the largest in the land, watched impassively from its hill forts. Its last gesture on the day that it marched out was to cede the forts to the advancing rival armies. Many fell to Zionist forces; the Latrun fort was among the exceptions. Seized by Jordan’s Arab Legion, it repelled five waves of attacks, even as the Arab lines crumbled on most every other front. When it was over, and the armistice line had been drawn, two intertwined spectacles had unfolded in front of its ramparts. One was a trail of tears into the hills of the West Bank, as upwards of 100,000 people from the coastal plain filed past, many falling by the wayside, never getting up again. The other was the new state of Israel, congealing around this trace cast of imperial structure.
Israel’s Guantánamo is a prison that does not exist, built for an uprising that wasn’t, maintained for a war without end.
The fort’s lease on relevance was to last until 1967, when it fell to the first Israeli attack staged there during the Six-Day War. Shortly thereafter, the remaining Palestinian villages of Latrun were forcibly emptied, swelling the ranks of the West Bank’s refugee camps. The fort itself would stand empty until 1982, when the Armored Corps Museum was installed within its walls. Long before this, however, Tegart’s work had already become the focus of another kind of revival. It was symbolically consecrated just one year after the end of the 1948 war, when the newly constituted Israel Border Police adopted as its emblem the tower which surmounted the border forts built alongside Tegart’s Wall—an emblem which today flies over the walls and fences which gird the West Bank and Gaza.
In the north of Israel, where a small remnant of the native population remained, the Tegarts became bases for a military government that came to rule this rump minority for another two decades. Israel had incorporated into its own national legislation the emergency defense laws that Britain had enacted during the Mandate, derived from the original Palestine Martial Law of 1937, and fell back on these provisions in governing its remaining Arabs. When its army swept up the last remains of Arab Palestine in 1967, the whole system was transplanted eastward. The Tegarts that remained there, which had until then garrisoned the Jordanian army, were drafted into service as headquarters of the Israeli military government, prisons, and interrogation centers.
In this form, the forts would also become founts of the split reality that Israel established in the West Bank. Shortly after the 1967 war, the government began building settlements inside the resurrected biblical “Judea and Samaria,” as most Israelis know the West Bank—small outposts at first, then growing into full-scale towns and urban neighborhoods. The people who moved there were Israeli citizens, governed by Israeli law, and encouraged to build. The native population on the other hand was ruled from the Tegarts, and while Israel debated what to do with them—a discussion that continues today—it moved to contain them, politically and spatially.
The most enduring rationalization for this policy was set out in 1980, three years after a certain Israeli general named Ariel Sharon had first been appointed as a minister in his country’s government. It came printed on a small piece of paper issued by the military governor’s office, rejecting an application for the construction of a Palestinian teacher’s residential compound near the village of Kalandia, just north of Jerusalem. Since 1967, this had been a familiar story, and in fact, the only likely one. The rationale, however—“not in compliance with RJ-5”—was novel. Around that time, military government officials had rediscovered a collection of regional zoning plans that the British had drawn up on the eve of the Revolt. Fitted to a much smaller population, often barely legible and wide open to government interpretation, these plans became the mold for native life in the West Bank. RJ-5. In the decades that followed, landscapes and people would find themselves confined within the outlines of these schemata—plans that were rarely shared with anyone outside the walls of the Tegarts, but which came to hold the remnants of Palestine in timeless suspension.
Years later I happened to glimpse the darkest corner of this administrative edifice. While driving through Israel, a friend familiar with the area pointed through the window to a cluster of low hills. “It’s somewhere out there,” he said. Hidden away among dense tree plantings, only the square-set tip of a building was visible, but it was still recognizably of Tegart’s design. Today that building has been omitted from all road maps and airbrushed out of aerial photographs. Sometimes known simply as Facility 1391, or Israel’s Guantánamo, it is a prison that does not exist, built for an uprising that wasn’t, maintained for a war without end. It is also this ghostly quality that most persistently haunts photographs of the Tegarts. Not a single human being is to be seen. There are empty doorways, closed gates, a lone car parked by the entrance, the driver and passengers nowhere in sight. Everything looks ominously suspended, like a stage set poised for the actors to make their entrance, for some drama to begin, or replay itself.
It was fall, the way I remember this now, two years to the day from when the headlines started bleeding. Stones were arcing through the air, catching the late evening light. A group of boys was practicing with their slingshots by the main roundabout in Ramallah. Occasionally an adult scurried from the local grocery-speakeasy; its doors slightly ajar; the owner peeking out occasionally; the street strewn with leaflets, rocks, and mangled pipes; the asphalt still engraved by tank treads. Up along the road leading past the old military governor’s compound, the jeeps were waiting. The crack of a rifle echoed down the street and backs stiffened. A rock tossed in half-jest grazed a shoulder, a gang formed, the outsider was made out, and a brief scuffle ensued. Then another shot split the sky and they turned again as one. Someone ran up the street and let a rock fly. A boom sounded back, careening off the street frontage, then another; the boys cleared out, fanning across the parking lot and into the adjoining side streets. A few hours later the TV crews would arrive and everyone would be where they needed to be. On the edges of the roundabout three ambulances would idle, red lights churning silently, innards glowing softly in anticipation. It was the anniversary of an uprising.
Already it feels like a long time ago.
In 1950, the Jerusalem training depot of the Palestine Police was turned into the West Bank headquarters for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), charged with caring for those people displaced by the partition and ultimate erasure of what was once Arab Palestine. If you drive north from there, you may retrace in reverse the migrations of those people, passing the Latrun hills on Route One before turning onto Highway Six. Following it along the Green Line border, past the upper reaches of the West Bank and then pushing up through the Galilee, until you arrive at Israel’s northern border, you will find fewer traces of Tegart’s Wall. The border forts are still there—fenced off, with armored personnel carriers parked outside and tripod antennas soaring from their roofs, listening in on the border. Of the mass of barbed wire and ditches that once cut through the land, nothing remains, however. In 1942 it was dismantled for scrap metal and recycled into the Second World War effort, a conflict in which things were done in Europe that had previously only been practiced in the colonies.
For decades thereafter, however, echoes of the Palestine conflict would ripple across the world—in Burma, the Gold Coast, and Rhodesia—places where imperial graduates of the Arab Revolt found themselves shoring up an Empire laid bare and snarling, looking increasingly ragged. One of them briefly went on to battle the Mau Mau uprising as Police Commissioner of the British East Africa Protectorate, in what is today Kenya—a conflict in which between 100,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu perished behind curtains of barbed wire. The full number of victims will never be known, because the British, before withdrawing, systematically destroyed all their prisoner files.
In light of what the British wrought in Palestine, I could not help but be struck by the fact that there echoed among Tegart’s correspondences with the men who served with him, a shared and persistent tone of frustration with the means that were put at their disposal. Writes one: “if one could imagine the country towed into the middle of the sea there was nothing in the internal conditions to prevent law and order, of a kind at any rate, being maintained within its borders.” I am not sure from the paper whether it was written by Tegart or one of his associates, and in some sense perhaps, it does not matter. It was a fantasy of the particular kind of power that was theirs: an entire country perfectly sealed, adrift in its own ruins.
In a side corridor by a maintenance office in the Armored Corps Museum, there hangs a photograph whose colors have long ago warped and faded. The picture was taken from the ridges in No-Man’s Land, along the edge of the West Bank, looking down at the fortress and onto the coastal plain. In the foreground it shows a memorial march, such as those that are conducted by relatives and serving members of the Israeli army, to honor those who have fallen in its wars. I do not know if anyone who works in the museum, or any of the other visitors stops to look at this picture, and if so, whether the overgrown ruins over which the march is being conducted strike them as disturbing. Perhaps no one takes any interest. I imagine the lights going out at the end of the day, one by one, until the corridors are dark and the picture again hangs by itself, hovering in a quiet corner of the night; the private dream of a fortress.
* In May 1940, a Mandate government land surveyor arrived in Bureika, a small village in the Haifa area, and found that it had vanished. The surveyor was able to confirm that the army had leveled Bureika in 1938. Since this had been done “for security reasons,” it was deemed that the village lands, which had previously been categorized as of a built-up nature, could be classified as suitable for Jewish settlement. No inquiries were apparently made into the whereabouts of the village’s inhabitants. ↩